The 61st running the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles has a long tradition as a premiere Kentucky Derby (G1) and Triple Crown preview and leading the cast for this edition is Chadds Ford Stable’s Union Rags, imposing winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) here on Feb. 26 and solid early favorite for the 138th Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
The Gulfstream Park Oaks at 1 1/8 miles will offer a rematch between Peras International’s Yara and Michael Dubb and partners’ Grace Hall, who finished one-two, a neck apart, in the Davona Dale Stakes (G2) going 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 25.
A daughter of Empire Maker trained by Anthony Dutrow, Grace Hall went into the Davona Dale as the 4-to-5 favorite while making her first start since finishing second to My Miss Aurelia in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4. Prior to the Breeders’ Cup she won all three of her starts, including the Spinaway Stakes (G1) at Saratoga.
Yara was a 65-to-1 longshot in the Gulfstream Oaks while making her first start around two turns after finishing a distant fourth in the seven-furlong Forward Gal Stakes (G2) here on Jan. 29. Based at Calder with trainer Jose Garoffalo, the daughter of Put It Back won two of four starts last year
Also expected for the Gulfstream Oaks are Godolphin Racing’s Captivating Lass, third in the Davona Dale for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, and Live Oak Plantation’s Zo Impressive, a daughter of Hard Spun that has won both of her career starts at this meet in very impressive fashion for trainer Tom Albertrani.
The Rampart at 1 1/8 miles is expected to offer a highly-anticipated match-up between Stronach Stable’s undefeated 4-year-old filly Awesome Feather and E. Paul Robsham’s 5-year-old mare Awesome Maria, winner of five straight Graded stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Awesome Feather swept to victory in all six of her races as a 2-year-old in 2010 for breeder Jacks or Better Farm and trainer Stanley Gold, sealing an Eclipse Award campaign winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) at Churchill Downs. The daughter of Awesome of Course was sold days later for $2.3 million at the Fasig-Tipton November sales to Frank Stronach.
Awesome Feather’s missed much of the 2011 season with a tendon problem, but returned in top form for new trainer Chad Brown winning an overnight stakes at Belmont Park in October, the Gazelle Stakes (G1) at Aqueduct by more than five lengths in late November and the Sunshine Million Distaff over the Gulfstream track last out on Jan. 28 by 5 ¾ lengths.
Awesome Maria also missed a sizable portion of the 2011 campaign after a win streak of her own. The roan/gray homebred daughter of Maria’s Mon swept to consecutive victories in the Sabin Stakes (G3) and Rampart Stakes here early in the year and then added tallies in the Shuvee Handicap (G2) in May and Ogden Phipps Handicap (G1) at Belmont Park in mid-June.
Awesome Maria was obviously a contender for an Eclipse Award at the time but suffered a condylar fracture at Saratoga training for a start in the Ruffian Invitational (G1) in July. She came back strong this winter with a repeat victory in the Sabin Stakes on Feb. 25, drawing off to score by eight lengths over 2011 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (G1) winner and Eclipse champion Royal Delta.
Prominent among the nominees for the $150,000 Orchid Stakes (G3) for fillies and mares at 1 ½ miles on turf are Trick or Treat International’s Brazilian-bred Here to Win and Barbara Hunter’s Keertana, one-two in the 11-furlong The Very One Stakes (G3) over the course on Feb. 25; and Stuart Janney III’s Hit It Rich, winner of the 12-furlong Long Island Handicap (G3) last fall at Aqueduct.
Leading the list of probable/possible starters for the $100,000 Appleton Stakes (G3) at one mile on turf for 4-year-olds and up is Live Oak Plantation’s 4-year-old Brilliant Speed, expected to make his first start since finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5 for trainer Tom Albertrani.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is expected to run either Harvey Clarke and partners’ 4-year-old Soldat or 5-year-old gelding Yankee Fourtune. Soldat finished second in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G2) at Churchill Downs and won the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) on the main track early last year. A son of War Front, Soldat looked good winning a turf allowance race over the course here on Mar. 4 in his first start since finishing 11th in the Kentucky Derby (G1) in early May.
Completing the Florida Derby Day stakes line-up are two events on the main track for older horses – the $100,000 Skip Away Stakes (G3) at 1 3/16 miles and the $70,000 Sir Shackleford Stakes at 6 ½ furlongs. Prominent on the Skip Away nomination roster are Lori and George Hall’s 4-year-old Pants On Fire and Frank Calabrese’s 5-year-old Where’s Sterling.